Brad Lewis Talks Photography in Kona, Hawaii
Though heavy fog kept me from seeing any volcanoes during my helicopter tour of Hawaii’s Big Island, it can’t stop me from enjoying these natural wonders in photo form. G. Brad Lewis’ volcano photographs have received numerous awards and have been widely exhibited, from the covers of National Geographic to his own lava-inspired art, found in galleries and museums around the world. Inspired by beauty, variety and adventure, Brad moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, near the summit of Kilauea Volcano, in 1982. He has been producing amazing lava photography ever since.
Can you talk about some of your favourite moments encountering lava?
Some of my best moments happen in very remote regions on the volcano when I camp out alone for days at a time. Being at the source is powerful—watching magma explode from newly formed vents. I can literally feel the earth alive under my feet. I am also fond of watching the lava flow into the ocean, two powerful forces interacting. The play of movement and light, texture and colour. Earth birth.
Do you ever go without the camera and just experience it with the naked eye, or do you require a telephoto lens to get up close and personal?
At times I leave my camera at home and simply experience the volcano without the distraction of recording it. This has backfired a time or two, as the activity is unique, but all the more reason to just take it in and let the awesome energy sweep over and excite me. But I usually have a full arsenal of equipment, with lenses ranging from 16 mm to 500 mm, a stout tripod and memory cards that will hold thousands of raw images.
Many other volcano photographers capture the explosive, dangerous elements of lava, but you focus on light and the emotional dimension. Why is your style so different from traditional volcano photography?
I have a very personal relationship with Kilauea Volcano, feeling and seeing it more as a living entity rather than a dangerous mountain ready to explode. Being in touch with my intuition keeps me out of harm’s way, so I trust in the elements and travel lightly, by intuition, looking and listening carefully. To me, it is creation at its finest, and everywhere I look, I see textures and compositions that thrill the photographer in me. I want others to experience this same exhilarated sense that the earth is alive and beautiful and so much bigger than us. When I capture this essence with my cameras, I have done my job.
You split your time between homes in Alaska, Utah and Hawaii. Has this made leading a “normal life” difficult?
I have no idea what a normal life is. My normal is certainly different from that of most people. So much beauty and so little time. Balance is very important to me. How can I fully appreciate my home in Hawaii if I don’t mix it up a bit with glaciers in Alaska, or remote sandstone kingdoms in southern Utah? To ski bottomless powder in the Wasatch Range, then be on the edge of Halemaumau in Hawaii watching the glow of the lava lake dance on the bottom of clouds blowing quickly by on the trade winds—it all ties together for an amazing variety of beauty and splendour. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.
What are some areas of the world you haven’t been to but that you’d like to photograph?
I would like to explore Iceland and Antarctica. I would like to go back to New Zealand, and some places in Europe that I travelled to in my 20s. With three home bases in such beautiful places, I can hardly fit in anything else.
What sort of equipment is necessary to do this kind of work? What sort of person does it take?
Equipment is relative, and overrated to a large degree. Of course, I like to have the very best, which I do keep current on. I am thrilled with the ISO capabilities of the latest Nikon cameras. I was slow to embrace the digital realm, but it has finally caught up to—and surpassed—what film is capable of producing. What kind of person does it take? It helps to have a sense of adventure, survival skills and the awareness to stay safe and not miss fleeting opportunities.
Do you have any favourite shots or images that are especially personal to you?
I have a few classics that will always be so. The exploding heart of lava is one of my favourites, and some of the time exposures of lava entering the ocean images are favourites, especially with breaking waves. One outing I had at the summit cone was particularly memorable: the huge lava lake filled up and overflowed from two sides, almost taking my camp out and casting such a wonderful glow in the night sky.
Can you elaborate on “liquid light” and what it means to you?
Flowing lava is a very unique subject [to photograph]. It is literally liquid light. Only the aurora borealis comes close to it. Basically, the first time I experienced flowing lava, I was hooked. And I have been the Volcano Man ever since.
And it has to be asked, have you had any dangerous or close calls during your shoots?
I have had a few close calls, especially in the beginning as I was getting the hang of living on an erupting volcano. The vents can be particularly dangerous. Some of the big spatter cones end up falling in on themselves when the magma chambers drain out from under them. Thin-roofed lava tubes are another danger to be avoided, and where the lava enters the ocean, large benches of new land build up, and some of them collapse into the ocean. Several people have died on these benches. So that is where the long lens comes in handy—I do not take risks in what I do, though it might not seem that way to the casual observer.
For more info about G. Brad Lewis Photography, or to buy Brad’s prints, log onto his web site.